It’s a well-worn TV formula: A rookie CIA agent is introduced to a world of intrigue and danger while trying to maintain a personal life. It worked for “Alias,” it works for “Chuck,” and while it might not be the most original concept, it works again in USA’s “Covert Affairs,” premiering tonight at 10 p.m.
This time, Piper Perabo (“Coyote Ugly”) stars as the new agent, Annie Walker, thrust into the action before she’s even completed her training. She dodges an assassin’s bullets, lies to the FBI, navigates interoffice politics, has an awful blind date and hides her real job from her sister. And that’s just her first day. Somehow though, it all manages to rise above cliches and works. Really well, in fact.
Credit USA’s uncanny ability to develop breezy, fast-paced, likable shows with an edge (why can’t any broadcast network do this?). “Covert Affairs” fits comfortably into the company of “Burn Notice” and “White Collar.” No, it’s not “The Wire,” but not every show needs to be a dramatic tour de force. Fun is the operative word at USA, and this is another series that nicely blends a mix of intelligent writing, snappy banter and explosive action.
Doug Liman serves as executive producer, and it shows. Liman was behind the highly entertaining spy action movies “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” as well as “Fair Game,” an upcoming film about exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame (who serves as a technical advisor to the show), and there’s a little bit of all three movies in the series. Action is hard to pull off on TV, since the special effects have to be done cheaper than in movies, but there’s a shootout and a car chase in tonight’s premiere that offer cinematic-quality thrills.
The creators of “Covert Affairs” have added a layer of realism missing from previous spy series. Their CIA headquarters is a big office building with a security checkpoint, not a mysterious underground lair. The agents are young because, like in real life, the CIA hired a ton of new, young recruits after 9/11. And when there’s a shootout, it brings unwanted attention from the cops and FBI. It makes Annie and her exploits a little more relatable than superspy Sydney Bristow or brain-weapon Chuck Bartowski. She’s not running around with guns blazing or with super kung-fu moves; she’s relying on her smarts and training and hoping for the best. She’s got new-job jitters and feels the stress of learning the ropes. It just so happens that Annie’s new gig is with the CIA.
Perabo pulls off a Jennifer Garner-in-“Alias” vibe – confident and good-humored girl-next-door, instantly sympathetic and likable, believable as an agent to be reckoned with, with hints of a dark cloud lurking over her past. The supporting cast is terrific too – Christopher Gorham (“Ugly Betty”) is her new best friend at work, a blind agent who’s a tech whiz; Peter Gallagher (“The O.C.”) is a glowering CIA division chief; and Kari Matchett (“24,” “Crash”) is Annie’s no-nonsense boss and the suspicious wife of Gallagher.
It all comes together in the most compelling pilot episode I’ve seen since “White Collar” debuted last year. It’s the most fun show you’ll see this week, and could be the hit of the summer. Deservedly so.